How to score brass for film and TV

M hears from two of composers - Andrew Pearce and Matt Dunkley - on how to score and work with brass instruments when composing for the screen…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 24 Jul 2013
  • min read
From the bold scores of dynamic blockbusters to more subtle scoring techniques, the sound of brass has reverberated through Hollywood films and beyond for many years.

The recent Screened Music Network Cinematic Brass Masterclass, led by composers and orchestrators Andrew Pearce and Matt Dunkley, discussed the use of this instrumentation in scores for the likes of World War Z, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and Pirates of the Carribean:At World’s End.

Matt, who has worked on more than 100 films including The Great Gatsby and Inception, emphasised that less can be more when it comes to using brass instrumentation in a film.

‘The key to brass composition is how you use it. You need to deploy it as an additional colour to enhance key points in a film. So bring in the brass for the champagne moment. If it’s there all the time, it gets boring,’ he explained.

We recap the key tips for scoring and working with brass discussed by Andrew (AP) and Matt (MD) from their recent masterclass at the BFI.

Preparation and efficiency can be key

AP: You don’t want any hands going up from musicians in a session. In other words, you don’t want to be wasting time when recording a score in a studio. Especially with the limited budgets often offered by adverts and independent films.

MD: Studio time is expensive so if there are wrong notes in the score you hand out, the atmosphere in the studio will change very quickly. If there are delays, then you can lose the respect of the orchestra, then the director.

Always consider who will be performing your score

AP: Brass composers always need to keep in mind the performers. Will it be top professional players? If not, then you need to consider their abilities and whether it will be within the range of their playing. Otherwise sessions can become far longer than necessary.

In London, there are a huge number of experienced players across a wide variety of instruments. However, elsewhere this isn’t the case. So if I’m orchestrating a score for players from overseas, I might do it differently.

Also keep in mind the time of day of a session. I’ve found that sessions in the afternoon often run smoother when the players are fully warmed up as opposed to a Monday morning.

Be prepared to work to very tight deadlines

AP: With Fast and Furious 6 we had a ridiculous deadline to work to so you need to be prepared for late nights. However, I find it amazing that a whole team from across the world can be working on the same project at the same time. It can be high pressured but you more you work in the industry, the more you get used to it.

You don’t need to show off

AP: You don’t need to go overboard when composing your score or using brass. It’s often better to find as big a sound as possible by using the least amount of resource. You can be clever and still show some musical restraint.

MD: Different orchestral colours help make a scene come to life and small forces can help make it. You don’t need to throw everything at it.

Players need to breath

AP: There is no point in writing an arrangement which is physically unplayable. So when composing for brass, you need to think as a player as well as composer and arranger.

Think about what will be heard

AP: When composing always think about what will be heard and why. You can write a great violin part but if it’s at the wrong octave, then it might not be heard.

Consider the articulation on behalf of each player. What do you want them to see/play? Recording sessions go far smoother when you know what you want the musicians to play and what you want to hear.

Don't be tied to a mock up of a score

AP: When I orchestrate from the mock up, I often go further than what I’ve written. It’s not set in stone. You don’t know what the set up is going to be and what the players will be capable of.

MD: Some clients often want a photocopy of their Logic file which can be very boring. I prefer bringing something to the table to make it come to life. However, I’m not going to change the cue. The job of the orchestrator is to serve the composer. It’s like going from black and white to colour but not so far that it becomes technicolour. If you do that, it then becomes a problem for the composer.

Listen to the players and their concerns

AP: Player and performers can sometimes make a score work - sharing of the high notes between the different trumpet players. Make the most of the musical resources available to you. If someone says that is too much, then you can stop.

MD: You need to listen to your players. Don’t be a dictator, be a collaborator as a happy orchestra plays better than a stressed orchestrator.

Learning orchestration on the floor

AP: As a young composer working with brass, there is nothing like learning how to work with brass in the studio. Work with youth orchestras if you can. Make mistakes and be courageous. Don’t play it safe all the time.

Visit the Screened Music Network to find out more about the organisation and their forthcoming masterclasses.